I read about the fire at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris with a feeling of personal loss. Long back, in the early nineties, I had seen it for the first time, almost every day, as the bus I took, went past a bridge on the River Seine. I always chose a seat from where I could see the Notre Dame. Its architecture is such that, it appears to stand on a triangular island, with its spire, the flying buttresses and the stained glass windows. From a distance, it feels familiar, like the images described in the English translations of the novel by Alexander Dumas – ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame.’ In my teens, the film based on the book scared me; with its images of Chimeras, Strix and Gargoyles looking down from the parapets, corridors and water-sprouts; sculpted on the upper sections of the cathedral, seemed to come alive.
So, when I saw the fires of Notre Dame, reducing it to mere armature, I was aghast, thinking of the transient nature of life. It takes years to build a cathedral like Notre Dame and a just a few hours to reduce it to dust.
A large plaza faces the cathedral, as devotees enter, holding candles with piety; amidst the crowds of tourists.
When, I entered the arched doorway, which has relief sculptures of “The Last Judgment,” along with the story of the Genesis, with tall elongated figures of the apostles, fully draped, over-looking the river and in complete harmony with the cathedral. These figures are sculpted taller than the normal length of a human body, as according to sculptural techniques, human figures appear to have a normal size, when seen from a distance. To add, the cathedral has very few nude figures, except for Adam and Eve, which are covered with creepers, like Adam has a fig-leaf and Eve is draped in her own long hair.
Having seen the Notre Dame, at day or night; was an over-powering experience with its impressive architecture. It looked different from the outside; while inside the cathedral, there was a different atmosphere, which was charged with beauty and spirituality.
It was fascinating that the outside did not give away; the inner beauty, which was in total contrast to the façade and other sides, with their flying buttresses and ribbed vaults, which gave height to the cathedral. This was to become the signature style of Gothic architecture, along with; its elongated sculptures and stained glass windows. All these elements along with the spire appeared to touch the sky and infinity.
Today, after the fire, it somehow; gives hope; that one day, Notre Dame will stand all over again.
At Notre Dame, both worshippers and tourists enter another world as they feel enveloped in an ethereal light. For those, who have experienced this light, it never leaves their aesthetic sensibilities, as light fills the entire space of the cathedral.
And, about light…I saw the Notre Dame in the early nineties. Till then, I had been teaching History of Art at design schools of Ahmedabad; India, and often showed slides of stained glass windows of Notre Dame. But, while teaching art in India, the stained glass windows looked like bright circles of colour in slides and art-films.
Everything changed, when I entered the Notre Dame de Paris, I was engulfed in its spiritual glow.
Rose windows are very much part of Christian art, which started as a small rose, which first appeared in Romanesque art, embedded with coloured glass and then became an enormous rose, which filled the walls of Gothic cathedrals with colour and light. Stained glass is a typical artistic genre of Gothic cathedrals of France and other European countries, as coloured glass pieces are held in place with metal armatures. The colour, compositions and figures are decided in advance, through a series of working drawings and sketches, which I had seen in a workshop near the cathedral of Chartres, near Paris.
After which, they are affixed on the inner walls of the cathedral and since these survived the fire, they are sturdy and will survive – Time.
The rose petals have innumerable figurative narratives, like the apostles and the center, almost always depicts an important incident from the life of Jesus Christ, like the nativity, relevant happenings and miracles.
The central rectangular space, facing the altar is made in painted wood in muted colours, embellished with gold, which resemble Russian Iconic art, as it unfolds the story of the birth of Jesus Christ.
Near the altar, there is a sculpture of Mother Mary wearing a crown of jewels. And, at the altar, there is a Cross is set against the background of a rose window and another magnificent sculpture by Nicholas Coustou. It shows Mother Mary looking down upon Jesus Christ wearing a crown of thorns and has just been brought down from the cross and placed on her lap, as great sorrow is writ large upon her delicate features. This marble sculpture has a certain resemblance to Michelangelo’s ‘Pieta,’ as it looks more delicate and fragile.
The anterooms of the cathedral have exhibition areas, where one can see the magnificent robes worn by priests, bishops, kings, displayed along with glass cases of gems, jeweled crowns, the crown of thorns and the Bible in various sizes from small to big, embellished with jewels and intricate artistic calligraphy. These illuminated Manuscripts of the Bible were decorated by the greatest artisans of the 12th Century; when Notre Dame was constructed. On the sides there are elevators, which take visitors to the top parapets to have a grand-stand view of the city of Paris.
The light within the Notre Dame had fascinated me; with its unforgettable aura, Besides, that, the inner spaces of the cathedral are enveloped in a meditative silence, which were sometimes broken; when the bells toll or you hear the midnight mass at the end of the year.
Otherwise, worshippers are seen in the inner sanctum-sanctorum, whispering prayes, lighting tall candles, as slowly the clouds disperse and a ray of sunlight changes direction. A thousand candles glow inside the cathedral, as the ray of light enters from one of the petals of the rose-shaped stained glass windows and the sun, softly enters the cathedral of Notre Dame, flooding it with light, that there are no words to describe its beauty, as it transformed it; with a heavenly divine glow.